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A Visit to Malmesbury

John Aubrey, a truly curious person but nonetheless an admirer and friend of Thomas Hobbes, wrote Hobbes’s first biography.  Aubrey was the definition of a dilettante; he dabbled in everything and concentrated on nothing.  He loved to drop names, indeed in Brief Lives (a gossipy, first person collection of short biographies of the rich and famous in England and Europe in the 17th Century) he does precisely that. Brief Lives presents little epitomises of the likes of Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, Christopher Wren, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Halley, Ben Johnson, and even William Shakespeare.   And, of course, Hobbes.

Like everything else Aubrey did, the book was never completed nor was it published in his lifetime.  Wonderfully, it was found among his chaotic collection papers, and after a great deal of editing and reediting over the years has been published numerous times.  There is even a play based on the book.  Aubrey loved framing lives in hyperbole, and then cuddling up next to them, but with Hobbes this was a problem.  Here’s how the biography begins:

The writers of the lives of the ancient philosophers used to, in the first place to speak of their lineage; and they tell us that in process of time several illustrious great families accounted it their glory to be branched from such or such a wise man.  Why now should that method be omitted in this little history of our Malmesbury philosopher?  Who though but of plebeian descent, his renown has and will give brightness to his name and family which hereafter may arise glorious and flourish in riches and may justly take in an honour to be of kin to this worthy person, so famous, for his learning, both at home and abroad.

I went to see what Thomas Hobbes’s hometown looked like in the Twenty First Century.  He was born in Malmesbury in 1588 – 421 years ago.  His house is gone.  The church his father preached at is gone.  But the old town is surprisingly charming.  It is the oldest borough (from 880 AD a self governing unit of local government) in England.  I went first to the local museum to inquire of how to find Hobbes’s house.  The high school kid at the counter had never heard of Hobbes.   Oh my.  He went and fetched the curator, who showed me around the museum, including a bronze of the old philosopher, and then aimed me toward where he thought the house use to be.  He warned me that near the spot where Hobbes was born someone had named their stone cottage “Hobbes Cottage” but that the actual house Hobbes was born in was torn down long ago.

Bust of Hobbes

Bust of Hobbes

I also had my copy of Brief Lives with me, and tried without success to understand Aubrey’s directions to Hobbes’s birthplace:

Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, philosopher, was born at his father’s house in Westport, being that extreme house that points into or faces, the Horse-Fair; the farthest house on the left hand as you go to Tedbury, leaving the church on your right.  To prevent mistakes, and that hereafter may rise no doubt what house was famous for this famous man’s birth, I do here testify that in April 1659, his brother Edmund went with me into this house, and into the chamber where he was born.  Now things begin to be antiquated, and I have heard some guess it might be at the house where his brother Edmund lived and died.  But this is so, as I here deliver it.  This house was given by Thomas, the vicar (Hobbes’s father) to his daughter, whose daughter or granddaughter possessed it when I was there.  It is a firm house, stone-built, and tiled, of one room (besides the buttery, or the like, within) below, and two chambers above.  It was in the innermost where he first drew breath.

But it is gone.  I decided that “Hobbes Cottage” was close enough for me to the manger of his birth, and besides I had forgotten the gold, frankincense and myrrh.


A quaint confusion about the place of Hobbes birth is the distinction between the boundaries of a “parish” and that of the borough.  Hobbes’s father served the parish of Westport as vicar until his drinking and fighting got him fired.  Their home was just inside the parish boundary on the road leading north out of Malmesbury toward Tedbury.  Some later biographers say Hobbes was born in Westport, others that he was born in Malmesbury.  Both are correct.

Hobbes made almost no reference to his hometown in his letters or books.  When he left Malmesbury as 15 for college at Oxford, he basically left for good.  He did come back in the summer of 1634, and looked up his old teacher Robert Latimer, who was then the teacher for none other than the young John Aubrey.  If there is anything Hobbes gained from the place of his birth, it was an excellent education.  Latimer was apparently an extraordinary teacher, particularly of Greek and Latin, both of which Hobbes was proficient in before entering Magdalene Hall, Oxford.

Of Hobbes’s homecoming in 1634 Aubrey writes:

I remember it was in venison season (July or August).  Mr. T. H. came into his native country to visit his friends, and amongst others he came then to see his old schoolmaster, Mr. Robert Latimer, at Leigh Delmere, where I was then in school in the church, newly entered in my grammar by him: here was the first place and time that ever I had the honour to see this worthy, learned man, who was then pleased to take notice of me, and the next day visited my relations.  He was a very proper man, brisk, and in very good habit.  His hair was then quite black.  He stayed at Malmesbury and in the neighbourhood a week or better; ‘twas the last time that ever he was in Wiltshire.

Poking around Malmesbury I couldn’t help but reflect on my own hometown, Lumberton, North Carolina.   Malmesbury is high on a hill with rivers on both sides.  Lumberton is on a slight elevation above surrounding swamps and the Lumbee River.   Both are truly “out of the way” places.  The only serious book ever written about Lumberton is titled “Like No Place Else on Earth.”  Great title.  Great book.  Two factors got T. H. out of Malmesbury: his uncle (who paid for his Oxford education) and his teacher.  I was similarly lucky to have a family and some teachers who helped set me free as well.   The world is so much bigger than the Malmesbury’s and the Lumberton’s, and lucky are we when freed to that larger reality.

Walking around a garden and a church grave yard I thought about Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (a fantastic English teacher of mine in Lumberton, Miss Hamilton, had required we memorize parts of this poem):

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,

Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Hobbes’s life is the living disproof of Gray’s thesis that geography is destiny.  And by leaving home in body or in mind, we each are presented with that eternal option – not flight or fight – but of growing or dying.  Hobbes was not to be found in Malmesbury.  He had left centuries ago.  And his writings on the equality of human beings; the necessity of peace; the fundamental realities of human association have traveled as well, into the political discourse of human life and human survival.  Malmesbury is from nowhere.  Hobbes is infused into human discourse everywhere.

I should never have compared Malmesbury in Wiltshire with Lumberton in North Carolina, but both do have really good bar-b-que.  Here’s a picture of the Q place in Malmesbury, The Whole Hog.  Made me feel right at home.

The Whole Hog, Malmesbury

The Whole Hog, Malmesbury


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